Nutrient to Know: Tryptophan

by in Nutrients to Know, Thanksgiving, November 12, 2009

roasted turkey
You always hear about tryptophan around Thanksgiving time. Folks warn that that getting too much turkey (one of the most well-known sources) puts you in a “food coma.” Is it really to blame for that post-dinner snooze?

What Is It?
This specific amino acid (a.k.a. a building block for protein) is considered “essential,” which means your body can’t make it on its own — you can only get it from food. All types of protein-rich foods are made of a combination of different amino acids. Tryptophan is important because it helps the body produce two must-haves: the B-vitamin niacin and the chemical serotonin. Like many other nutrients, supplements exist, but research has found these can cause some very dangerous side effects. So, as usual, stick to the safest version — tryptophan found naturally in your food!

Why Is It Good For You?
Tryptophan is one way that our bodies can get niacin; plus, it’s important for energy metabolism, our digestion and maintaining healthy skin.

What About That “Turkey Makes You Sleepy” Story?
That food myth has to do with tryptophan’s help in forming serotonin, which is involved in sleep regulation, appetite control and mood. The reality is that you’d have to eat tryptophan alone and on an empty stomach (not likely on Thanksgiving) in order for it to make you feel sleepy. Because foods that contain tryptophan also contain other types of amino acids, that holiday turkey isn’t what’s making you tired. In fact, turkey’s tryptophan content isn’t even as high as it is in chicken and cheese.

The reality: Overeating, drinking alcohol and consuming a high-fat meal (which takes more time and energy to digest) are more likely the causes for that Thanksgiving afternoon nap.

Where Can I Find It?
Other than turkey, here are some of the major sources of tryptophan:
Peanut butter
Pumpkin (and pumpkin seeds)

See a lot of familiar Thanksgiving dishes lurking in that list?

Make the turkey in the photo above: Ina’s Herb-Roasted Turkey Breast

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Comments (6)

  1. toni says:

    thanks has provided information

  2. Krikri says:

    You see, its amazing that these common, everyday foods all share the chemical tryptophan. Your analysis provides more insight into the sleep effects. Supplements may help but not as much as organic foods. They are useful when for one reason or another, one is unable to obtain the foods that are rich in the particular nutrient he is lacking.

  3. fer says:

    Its really good to know about tryptophan.Frankly speaking I really had not any information about it.You have given really nice information about tryptophan.Thank you very much for improving my knowledge.

  4. @KatyB14 says:

    I eat turkey and drink milk religiously! I always thought that I would get tired after a turkey sandwich or a glass of milk! Glad to know I don't have to give them up during the day in order to stay awake!

  5. Pyroman says:

    Again, an article on why you become sleepy after a meal, including Thanksgiving, misses the true mark of explaining a normal physiological process. It's all about the parasympathetic nervous system (feed or breed) which is opposite of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). The brain, based on the chemicals and hormones, allows the parasympathetic system to take over by decreasing the stimulation from the sympathetic nervous system (known as sympathetic tone). When this occurs, blood flow via abdominal arteries & veins increase in size and volume to immediately aid in digestion that best capitalizes on the immediately available nutrients. This increase of blood flow to the abdomen decreases blood flow to the brain just enough to cause sleepiness. This process significantly overshadows the seratonin process which is more dominant for natural sleep cycles and less likely combated with a brisk walk at onset.

  6. Lalita says:

    I heard a rumor that milk, only when heated (I'm not sure of the temperature), produces tryptophan. Supposedly this is why babies who are fed warm milk before bed go to sleep better. I sure works for me. I wanted to know if it was a comfort thing or if there really is enough tryptophan in warm milk to make one very sleepy.

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